Tag Archives forK-12 scholarships

No limits: Gardiner Scholarships fuel big dreams for the Alexander family


Abby Alexander is a 9-year-old entrepreneur who has developed – and hit the local market with – her own line of skin-care products. She recently sold her Gifts by Abby Lane merchandise during an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Her brother, Christopher, 13, loves acting and wants to eventually write and direct movies. In his spare time, he reads Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

A young entrepreneur, Abby Alexander recently displayed her own skin-care products, Gifts by Abby Lane, during an expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Abby and Christopher are biological siblings who were adopted at a young age by Kelli Alexander and Nicholas Alexander of Spring Hill, Florida, about 50 miles north of Tampa.

Christopher was 4 when the Alexanders adopted him, and he soon began attending a neighborhood school. Around third grade, he started having some difficulties.

“In school, the teachers started to notice that he was getting distracted by little things, like the temperature of the classroom or his friend was wearing new shoes,” Kelli Alexander said. “He couldn’t focus on what the teacher was teaching and his (learning style) is very one-step-at-a-time. He couldn’t focus. He’d get instructions and would get lost in multiple-step instructions.”

He often struggled with reading and math, and would come home frustrated and discouraged.

The Alexanders had adopted Abby when she was 19 months old. When Abby started school, she had different challenges.

“Abby struggled with not being in control of things,” Kelli said. “Anytime the teacher would deviate from a schedule, she couldn’t focus. If they were five minutes late for art class, it would throw off the rest of her day. She was done.”

It didn’t help that Abby also had attachment and anxiety issues, as did her brother.

Now in seventh grade, Christopher was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age 9. Abby, a fourth-grader, was 7 when she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum; the Alexanders also were told she is gifted.

Christopher Alexander is a voracious reader who wants to someday become a professional actor.

Through her own research, Kelli Alexander learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Thanks to the scholarship, Kelli has been able to afford to home school Christopher for the past four years, while husband Nicholas works at a Walmart distribution center. Abby started home schooling this year. Kelli Alexander said she is pleased with her children’s progress, and both kids said they are


happier learning at home, where they are also close to their 3-year-old brother William.

“Our family is always on a tight budget,” Kelli said. “The scholarship has allowed us to choose high-quality curricula, quality technology and supplies to cater to their special needs. The scholarship allows us to decide what, where and how we teach our children. We can design a curriculum that plays off of their strengths and passions. Since being home-schooled, both have shown remarkable improvements not just academically, but emotionally as well.”

Kelli, Abby and Christopher Alexander recently acted in a production of “Annie” at the Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, Florida.

The family, including Kelli, regularly participates in community theater productions at Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, which has Christopher dreaming of a career on the stage or in a director’s chair – or both. He said his overall outlook on life has changed since he started home schooling.

“Home-school is so much better,” he said. “My other school was so stressful and fake. The kids and students were crazy and stressful – naïve.”

He has acted in community productions of “Around the World In 80 Days,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Annie” and “Peter Pan.” He is currently auditioning for the part of Quee, a dwarf in the medieval comedy, “ReUnKnighted.”

“I really want to be an actor,” he said. “That’s my dream. I look to do any roles that sound good.”

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

“Right now, I’m on ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio,” he said.

In the fall, Abby decided she wanted to earn her own money. Her strong interest in science and math led to the idea of starting her own line of skin-care products.

“With the scholarship, we were able to find resources to help her learn about small businesses and in a very short time she created a business plan,” Kelli Alexander said. “Gifts by Abby Lane was born at our kitchen table. She makes specialty items that don’t have any added perfumes or dyes. In the past few months, she has expanded from selling to friends and family to setting up booths at large markets and she has many more planned for the coming months.  This business venture has been the greatest hands-on lesson for her in business, economics and customer service.”

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

“At first, we gave them as presents to some of our friends, then I thought it would be cool to make products that almost everybody can use,” she said.

Her interests are not bound to beauty products. The family has two kittens – Genie and Bobby – which has sparked her enthusiasm for the veterinary field.

Abby, described by her mother as “very analytical and practical,” has such a keen interest in national security that she has also considered a career as a border patrol agent.

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

“The Gardiner Scholarship has given us the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.




Republic National Distributing Company takes center stage and donates $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program


Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest wine and spirits wholesaler, announced on Feb. 6 a contribution of $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a $65 million contribution as Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera looks on. RNDC’s contribution will fund more than 9,940 scholarships for lower-income students to attend a school that best meets their learning needs. Rivera is a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with plans to become a commercial airline pilot.

The donation was announced during RNDC’s state sales meeting, held on a soundstage at Universal Studios Orlando.

RNDC’s donation will allow more than 9,940 K-12 students to attend the school of their choice through Florida Tax Credit scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

“Making a difference in the life of a student, their family and our community makes us very proud. For many students, having the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their learning needs can propel them on a path toward a better future,” said RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. “We’re proud to support Florida schoolchildren through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.”

This is the sixth consecutive year RNDC has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Step Up For Students allows lower-income families the opportunity to attend schools they might not otherwise be able to afford. But we couldn’t do this without the support and generosity of our donors,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since 2012, RNDC has contributed $180 million, providing more than 30,665 scholarships. On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank you for your continued commitment and generosity.”

Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera and his mother Deborah DeJesus attended the event to share their story with the RNDC associates. During his junior year of high school, Orlando’s grades had dropped to nearly failing. With help from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Orlando was able to change schools and attend Heritage Christian School in Kissimmee.

“Going to Heritage turned my life around,” said Orlando. “Today, I’m a freshman at Embry-Riddle, studying aeronautical science on the airline pilot specialty track. I’d like to thank Step Up For Students and donors like RNDC for making this possible.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org

School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty


At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis, a Step Up For Students graduate, now attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different.

Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.

Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.

After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.

It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.

Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.

“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.

Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.

Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.

“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”

Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.

“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”

Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.

But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.

Renée Lewis, left, and Donna Nelson forged a strong bond in raising Maloni together.

After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.

With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.

The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”

From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org. 

School choice scholarship ‘saved’ bullying victim


Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.

At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.

In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.

After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.

“It was chaos,” he said.

Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.

“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”

Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.

Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.

“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”

That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.

“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”

One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.

His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.

“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”

Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.

“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”

Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.

Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.

But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.

The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.

The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.

There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.

“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”

It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.

“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”

By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.

“I felt complete,” Valentin said.

At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.

“I was speechless,” Valentin said.

Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.

Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.

“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”

Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.

Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.

“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”

Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.

“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”

About La Progresiva Presbyterian School

Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

UnitedHealthcare celebrates season of giving with record-setting contribution to Step Up For Students

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students

NAPLES, Fla. – In this season of giving, UnitedHealthcare announced Dec. 4 a record-breaking contribution of $15 million to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare South Florida, shares a message of giving hope through supporting community programs, particularly Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income K-12 Florida schoolchildren. Zaffiris announced a $15 contribution to the organization for the 2017-18 schoolyear at an event at Naples Adventist Christian School on Dec. 4.

Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare South Florida, shares a message of giving hope through supporting community programs, particularly Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income K-12 Florida schoolchildren. 

Step Up For Students celebrated the support and contributions of UnitedHealthcare during an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare has contributed more than $88 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships for nearly 17,000 students across Florida to attend either an out-of-district public school or private school that best suits their academic needs.

“UnitedHealthcare is proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support this impressive organization which invests in the future of our children,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida. “Especially during the holiday season, it’s important to support programs in our communities that help others. Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative.”

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is providing opportunities for nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 441 residing in Collier County

“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “I’m just so pleased to know that together with our partners we are making such an important difference in our state by giving students the educational opportunities they deserve.”

At the event, Audrey Wainwright, principal at Naples Adventist Christian School, shared her support for the Step Up organization and thanked UnitedHealthcare for its ongoing commitment to the program. She encouraged other companies to consider participation.

UnitedHealthcare announced a $15 million contribution to Step Up For Students at an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Pictured (back row center) are Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthil and UnitedHealthcare CEO South Florida Nicholas Zaffiris, along with students from Naples Adventist Christian School.

“I have seen first-hand the benefits of this scholarship program,” Wainwright said. “So many of our students have made tremendous improvements with the help of Step Up For Students, leading to a better future for themselves and our state.”

Scholarship parent Onetia Lansiquot, who spoke at the event, said the scholarship has allowed her to provide her daughter, Leilah, a second-grader at Naples Adventist, with strong academics in a comfortable, secure environment.

“Without Step Up For Students, Leilah would likely be going to a charter or public school,” Lansiquot said before thanking UnitedHealthcare. “I’m sure her progress would be OK, but being in a private school, she gets that extra attention, that extra little push, ensuring that her educational needs are met. You are truly changing lives by investing in the future of our children’s education, and my family is so grateful.”





Insurance industry leaders provide record-setting contributions to Step Up For Students

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s insurance industry has stepped up to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at a record level, committing $61.2 million this year to fund scholarships for more than 9,380 students. Leading the pack is UnitedHealthcare, which has contributed more than $83 million to Step Up For Students over the past decade.

UnitedHealthcare CEO Greg Reidy on Oct. 4  visited Arlington Community Academy in  Jacksonville, to meet scholars his company has helped attend the school, and to promote the program’s impact and encourage other insurance companies to participate.

UnitedHealthcare CEO Greg Reidy on Oct. 4 visited Arlington Community Academy in Jacksonville, where students are among the beneficiaries of the scholarships, to promote the program’s impact and encourage other insurance companies to participate.

“By helping struggling students get into an educational environment where they can succeed, we know we are helping to make our state stronger,” said Reidy. “It’s gratifying to meet the students who are benefiting from these scholarships and see them on a track to reach their full potential.”

Arlington Community Academy students, who received the tax credit scholarship through Step Up For Students, enjoyed the event with UnitedHealthCare.

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, praised the insurance company’s historic support for the program. Step Up  provides scholarships for lower-income students to attend the schools that best meet their individual needs.  A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare’s contributions have enabled more than 18,000 Florida students to attend schools that offer them a chance at a brighter future. The company’s recent contribution will help serve the 7,483 students who receive the scholarships in Duval County alone.

Tamara Herring, whose daughter Tori is a second-grader at Arlington Community Academy, thanked donors for giving her child a chance at a better future.

“Support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical for the work our team does to support children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “This contribution is an investment in students, and it enables the positive impacts of this program to continue and expand to change more lives for the better.”

Families and students who have benefited from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program added their voices  in support of the insurance industry’s efforts, urging other companies to consider participation.

“This program directly helps children in our local area, and I am grateful that my own children can now attend the school that’s right for them,” said Tamara Herring, whose daughter Tori is a second-grader are Arlington Community Academy. “I am so grateful for the many donors who support this program, individuals and companies that are helping children like mine have a better future. Every child deserves that chance.”




Study: FL private school choice students more likely to get to college, get degrees

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Sept. 27, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.


The “triply disadvantaged” students who participate in the nation’s largest private school choice program enroll in college and obtain degrees at higher rates than like students in public schools, and those rates climb the longer the students use the scholarship, according to a first-of-its-kind study released this morning by The Urban Institute. The college enrollment rate overall is 15 percent higher for the low-income students who use Florida tax credit scholarships, the study found. That climbs to about 40 percent higher for students who use a scholarship at least four years.

The longer students participate in the Florida tax credit scholarship program, the more likely they are to enroll in college, compared to peers who do not receive scholarships. Chart by Step Up For Students, using data from the Urban Institute.

Meanwhile, scholarship students are 8 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees. That number rises to 29 percent for those who secured scholarships in earlier grades and used them at least four years.

Annual evaluations of standardized test results in the scholarship program have consistently found the average student who uses the program to attend a private school makes roughly one year’s academic progress in one year’s time.

They’ve also found students who use the scholarships tend to be more disadvantaged than other lower-income students who don’t use them.

Urban Institute authors Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn describe scholarship students this way: “They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”

Studies have looked at long-term outcomes for other programs that help disadvantaged students pay private school tuition.

They found students in Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee were more likely to graduate high school or attend college, respectively, if they received a voucher.

But researchers haven’t looked as much at college enrollment among students who received scholarships from big, statewide programs. The Urban Institute report is unprecedented in its scale. It looks at more than 10,000 students across the nation’s third-largest state. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarships.

Unpacking the findings

The study finds students who use tax credit scholarships are significantly more likely than peers with similar disadvantages to enroll in college within two years of finishing high school.

Students who use Florida tax credit scholarships are more likely to enroll in college. Chart by Urban Institute. *Means results are statistically significant.

Students who continued using a scholarship for four years or more saw, by far, the largest college-enrollment boost. Those who only used a scholarship for one year saw essentially no benefit.

The researchers note one potential factor. Students who leave the scholarship program after a short time tend to struggle more academically. Those who remain on scholarships for several years tend to perform better, perhaps because they’ve found schools that work for them.

Most of the enrollment boost for scholarship alumni happened at Florida’s community colleges. The state’s 28 community colleges are intended to be accessible and affordable. Tuition and fees for full-time Florida College System students working toward associate degrees cost roughly half what students pay at the state’s four-year public universities. The researchers noted the two-year schools are “more financially accessible to the low-income students participating in FTC.”

The researchers didn’t look at private or out-of-state institutions, where data wasn’t as readily available. As a result, they cautioned that: “National data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools. Because of this, our results may understate the true impact of FTC participation on college enrollment and degree attainment.”

The enrollment boost was larger for a few notable groups. Scholarships students born outside the U.S. and those who spoke a language other than English at home saw some of the largest jumps in college enrollment.

Scholarship students weren’t just more likely to attend two-year colleges. They were also 8 percent more likely to earn associate degrees. But the researchers note there was some drop-off between the jump in college attendance and the jump in completion.

Students who use Florida tax credit scholarships are more likely to obtain associate degrees. Chart by Urban Institute. *Means results are statistically significant.

Also, scholarship students were not significantly more likely to earn four-year degrees. The researchers note their sample sizes were small for this group, so it was hard to make statistical comparisons. They also noted that only 4 percent of the disadvantaged public-school students they compared to scholarship recipients earn bachelor’s degrees.

What the findings mean

Low-income students from high-poverty schools face greater barriers getting to college than their middle-income peers. To earn a four-year degree, the barriers are larger still. They’re more likely to struggle with tuition payments, student loans and jobs that take time away from their studies.

These barriers deserve a closer look, the Urban Institute researchers write.

This study finds that the nation’s largest private school choice program helps students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees. A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes. But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.

Other programs dedicated to expanding educational opportunity for lower-income students have seen similar results. In 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program learned roughly 33 percent of students who completed middle school with the nation’s largest charter school network managed to graduate college.

Those results didn’t satisfy KIPP. So the charter organization created a new program to help its alumni not only reach college, but finish it.

Still, for school choice programs facing a flurry of headlines, the Urban Institute report suggests the anecdotes about school choice scholarship recipients awakening to the possibility of college aren’t mere anomalies.

Travis Pillow can be reached at Tpillow@sufs.org.

SKECHERS steps in to help disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren with Step Up For Students scholarships


CLEARWATER, Fla. – SKECHERS USA, Inc., a global leader in the performance and lifestyle footwear industry, today announced a $210,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students scholarship program.

This is the second year that SKECHERS, headquartered in Manhatten Beach, California, has supported the program and their contribution will fund scholarships for 32 Florida students in the 2017-18 school year.

“SKECHERS is proud to participate in Florida’s Step Up For Students program for the second consecutive year,” said Michael Greenberg, president of SKECHERS. “This essential state program complements ongoing efforts at SKECHERS to help kids around the globe, including our charitable BOBS footwear collection and the annual SKECHERS Pier-to-Pier Friendship Walk in Manhattan Beach, CA that supports kids with special needs, and education.”

Through the BOBS from Skechers program, SKECHERS has donated new shoes to more than 14 million kids affected by poverty, homelessness and disasters in the United States and more than 30 countries worldwide.

Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides K-12 grade scholarships to qualified lower-income families throughout Florida. The tax credit program was created by the Florida Legislature in 2001 and is funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to assist with transportation costs to an out-of-district public school.

“We are grateful to SKECHERS for its support of our mission to ensure Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs through educational choice,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “On behalf of Step Up and the tens of thousands of families we serve, we thank SKECHERS for their commitment to our Florida communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for grades K-5, $6,631 for six to eight and $6,920 for grades nine to 12. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.




Eduardo Rivero’s amazing turnaround


Eduardo Rivero was a sixth-grader reading at a fourth-grade level when school started last year. He was also behind in math and had trouble concentrating.

As he begins seventh grade at Kingdom Academy, a pre-K through 8 private school in Miami, the 12-year-old is reading at an eighth-grade level and thriving in math.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

The amazing turnaround has left his mother, Jovanna Rivero, pleasantly surprised.

“I sat down with his teacher at the end of the year, and they showed me the (reading) score and, oh, my God, I was so emotional and happy,” Jovanna Rivero said. “It was like opening up a box with a surprise in it. I didn’t think it would be so good. Even the teachers and staff thought it was amazing by how much progress he made in that time.”

Besides Eduardo’s hard work, she said teacher Xiomara Carrera was instrumental in his success.

“She saw that he was falling behind in his studies and understood that he was missing the previous year’s foundational understanding of math and English,” Rivero said. “Not addressing it would cause him to spiral into a failing year. The pressure of not understanding each day’s advancing subject matter was hurting  him not only academically, but socially as well.

“When I approached the school about this, they offered to add him in Mrs. Carrera’s after-school tutoring program. Unfortunately, by the second quarter of the school year the program was already full. Mrs. Carrera took the initiative to open her schedule and some personal time to work with Eduardo. It makes me so happy to see that teachers like Mrs. Carrera are willing to work with parents and truly care for our children’s success.”

Eduardo recently entered his third year at Kingdom Academy. His mother said he previously attended a local elementary school, but while he made mostly A’s and B’s, he was not happy there.

Jovanna Rivero learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through a friend whose child went to Kingdom Academy. A single mother of two who works as a medical assistant, she applied for the program for lower-income families through Step Up For Students and Eduardo was accepted.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

While many students in the program realize academic improvements after receiving a scholarship, Eduardo was different.

“During his fifth-grade year, we noticed an odd behavior when it came to focusing on a task,” Rivero said. “Through counseling it was determined he had a mild learning disability. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.”

She doubts Eduardo would have gotten as much individualized attention at their neighborhood school. Her younger son Julian is now doing well as a first-grader at Kingdom Academy; he is also on the scholarship program through Step Up.

When he isn’t astounding his family and teachers with academic progress, Eduardo enjoys computer coding, video games, Minecraft and art.

“So far, I want to be animator,” he said.

“He draws characters from his imagination,” his mother said. “Whatever goes into his brain, he draws.”

She said Eduardo’s confidence has soared since his remarkable academic turnaround.

“We’re very grateful to everyone at Step Up and Kingdom Academy,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@StepUpForStudents.org.

In light of her oldest son’s stunning academic turnaround, Jovanna Rivero says thank you:









Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy molds industrious young students



A three-classroom school tucked inside a church in south St. Petersburg, Florida, is proving that a learning institution doesn’t need a sprawling campus to become a beacon for families seeking educational options.

Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy was founded in 2011 by Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

That first year, there were only three sixth-grade students and one teacher, but it has grown steadily. It now serves sixth- through eighth-graders, and the staff has grown to three full-time teachers, three teacher’s assistants and Principal Shannon Dolly.


Of the school’s 36 students in 2016-17, 24 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Because of our supporters, those students now have hope for a brighter future.

Dolly attributed Mt. Moriah’s growth to word-of-mouth testimonials among parents in the area.

“We also put up a sign out front a couple of years ago,” she said. “That alone has helped us a lot.”

Most students are from the south St. Petersburg area, although some travel from nearby Largo and Pinellas Park.

Dolly is happy that enrollment is increasing and ecstatic with how well her students are performing.

During the 2016-17 school year, the school opted into Step Up’s Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) assessment. With multiple tests a year, MAP® provides teachers with almost immediate results, allowing them to adjust their instruction to the needs of each student.

Dolly said the program has worked well and that reading scores at Mt.Moriah have significantly increased. Mt. Moriah graduates either attend a public school or transfer to a private high school.

Because of our supporters, students like Zharia Stephens, of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, are thriving in an environment that fits their educational needs. Their support helps children receive a better education.

Without our supporters, crucial innovations like MAP would not be possible.

“I work diligently with the eighth-grade parents to get their kids in the right school,” Dolly said. “We make sure they’re on a rigorous academic program. They don’t know it, but they work a grade ahead. When they go to high school, they already have an Algebra 1 or Spanish 1 credit, as long as they pass it here.”

Students like Tahjai Lassiter, 14, have thrived at Mt. Moriah. A student on the tax-credit scholarship program, Tahjai graduated from the school in June as its valedictorian with a 3.8 grade-point average. In 2017-18, she plans to attend Gibbs High School, a local public school, where she will be enrolled in the Beta program.

The Beta program blends business and technological skills into students’ academic courses. The program includes a “real world simulated business class where students use their critical thinking skills and hands-on curriculum to operate a business within the school,” according to the school’s website.

The program should offer plenty of challenges, but they are ones Tahjai has been well-prepared for at Mt. Moriah. In fact, the program should be an especially good fit for her.

“I want to own a couple of businesses locally,” she said of her future aspirations.

Zharia Stephens, 12, a rising eighth-grader, said she is also happy at Mt. Moriah. She is also a tax-credit scholar and previously attended a private elementary school.

Although she said science is her favorite subject, “because it’s easier,” Zharia aspires to someday become an attorney.

“Sometimes I like to argue,” she said.

Dolly nodded in agreement, saying, “She’s a great debater.”

Zharia added that television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have helped stoke her passion for issues pertaining to crime and punishment.

Asked what she liked most about Mt. Moriah, Zharia didn’t hesitate to mention the staff.

“Because they love me,” she said with a grin.

Without our supporters, Zharia might have been lost in a sea of other students.